So what should the guidelines be for rules and consequences in groups with young kids? Here are some DO’s and DONT’s that have worked for me:
DO establish ownership of rules and consequences.
Children follow rules that make logical, concrete sense to them and are framed in a simple way. Having kids identify and discuss why rules are important will allow them to feel more ownership.
DO create rules that tell them what TO do, instead of what NOT to do.
Children respond better to rules that clearly state the desired behavior. Use rules that are framed in the positive and cover many things.
DO review the rules frequently.
Group rules should be reviewed each group session and displayed in a prominent place in the room. It is unrealistic to expect a seven, eight, or even nine-year-old to come to group once every one or two weeks and remember the rules from the last time. It is also a set-up for failure.
DO make the rules relevant to their own lives.
As much as possible, have the kids read and describe what they mean. This again allows for ownership.
DO enforce rules with simple but clear consequences.
You cannot have rules without making clear what the consequences are for a rule break. Keep these simple and clear.
DO follow-through from the beginning.
The biggest mistake a facilitator can make is not giving consequences on the first day of group if needed. Don’t wait until the 5th session when things are out of control to start enforcing the rules. By then, you have set the tone.
DON’t get stuck with too many rules.
There should never be any more than 5 rules in a kids group. More than that is too much to expect kids to remember.
DON’t reinforce bad behavior by processing consequences with a child.
Every new group facilitator has made the mistake of giving a consequence for a rule break, seeing a child’s reaction to it, and then immediately going over to console them or explain why they received the consequence. A consequence is given quickly, calmly, with limited discussion, no shaming and no judgement.
DON’t take back a consequence!
It is natural and developmentally appropriate for elementary age children to “test” facilitators. They want to know you mean what you say and if you will follow through. When you give a consequence but then take it back, you’ve lost all credibility. It quickly becomes clear that the adult is not the person in charge.
Consequences should not carry over from one day to the next. Give children a chance to start out with a fresh, clean slate each group session. Each day should be a new beginning.
Children need rules and guidelines to feel safe. I have often heard counselors tell me that it's difficult to enforce rules and give consequences because they "feel sorry" for these kids who have been through so much in their young lives. They don't want them to feel worse. This is a natural feeling, one that I've experienced as well. What I've come to understand is that this kind of thinking is disrespectful to kids.
The children that walk into your group deserve a chance to succeed, a chance to connect, a chance to have clear boundaries and the best experience possible. An out-of-control group provides none of these things. Kids do not deserve to be objects of pity. They deserve what every child does - an environment that allows them to play, learn, share and have fun in a safe way without the responsibility of being “in charge." In other words, just let them be kids!
This post is adapted from an article I wrote for "Planting Seeds", an on-line publication from the Betty Ford Institute. For the full article, click here: Do Not Forget The Rules! Creating Safety in Support Groups for Children.